First-time business owners Vaishali and Chirayu Shah are opening The Coder School Farmington on October 13, 2018.
The Coder School is an after-school program that teaches kids ages 7 to 18 how to code. With headquarters in Silicon Valley, the national franchise has locations throughout the country—the Farmington location will be Connecticut’s first Coder School.
Co-owners Vaishali and Chirayu Shah spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator about their startup experience.
NAN PRICE: This is your first business. What prompted you transition into owning a franchise. That’s a big jump.
VAISHALI SHAH: It is! And it was hard, because I loved the work I did. I worked in the corporate world for about nine years and taught at a Manchester Community College for three years. However, our dream has always been to own our own business. And I wanted to do something more for the community and more for kids.
CHIRAYU SHAH: Vaishali will be primarily running the school. I’m going to be supporting it whenever I can, but I’m still going to be doing my full-time job as a Project Manager at ESPN to maintain some stability.
NAN: How did you choose the franchise?
VAISHALI: We didn’t want to go into a saturated market, so we spent about five years researching. The idea started when we enrolled our son in Kumon, an after-school enrichment program that teaches math and reading. Chirayu and I started thinking: There’s got to be more than just math and reading.
Connecticut has two well-known after-school enrichment programs: Kumon and Mathnasium, which focuses on helping students with math. But there was nothing about coding.
Chirayu discovered The Coder School online. At first, I needed help wrapping my head around the concept. We did more research and learned that coding is up-and-coming. It’s becoming a huge part of the future. Many jobs are looking for coders, and many are unfilled because they can’t keep up with the demand of how fast technology is moving.
We did more investigating and found that schools weren’t really offering more than introductory coding. They simply don’t have the resources. Something like Java, Python, or a C language needs to be taught by someone who has a coding background, and the schools don’t have that.
We think The Coder School has the best programs and teaching methods for kids.
NAN: Did you connect with other franchisors?
VAISHALI: Yes. The closest Coder School now is in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t even open yet. So, there was nothing on the East Coast for us to just drive to and check out.
In October 2017, the owner of the Coder School Syosset, which is in Long Island, invited us to the grand opening. We were blown away! It was swamped with kids and parents. There were computers everywhere. The way the school is designed just attracts kids.
Then, everything became more tangible. We could see the computers. We could see the design and the layout. And, we could see how excited the kids are. That’s what pushed us to visit the Coder School headquarters in California. We went in December 2017.
CHIRAYU: Our trip to California was phenomenal. The franchisors showed us how the program was run. On the flight home we just looked at each other and knew we wanted to move forward.
NAN: As a franchise, are their strict guidelines or can you be innovative in your approach?
VAISHALI: That’s what we like the most about this franchise. It’s very flexible as long as you offer the programs provided by The Coder School. When it comes to the build out and your hours of operation, they’re flexible. You can add your own taste and you’re encouraged to work with your market.
CHIRAYU: What makes The Coder School innovative compared to other programs is there’s not a traditional classroom setting. Also, there isn’t a true curriculum a student must follow. Each curriculum is custom-made for each student. We can create projects geared toward what students like. So, we can customize our curriculum―as long as the kids are having fun and they’re learning. Those are the two main things we have to keep in mind.
NAN: How did you find the space in Farmington?
VAISHALI: It took us five months to find a spot. We were close to signing with one place and it didn’t work out. And then we really liked two other places, but those didn’t work out because of zoning. We learned a lot of new things―and I feel like the people in the town learned a lot, too. Because our business has the word “school” in it, it has to be zoned as an office. It’s not considered a business.
So, we had a lot of zoning issues because if a location we were looking at wasn’t zoned for an office, there was no point in us looking. We knew it would take another two or three months just to get that approved―if it even got approved.
CHIRAYU: And, in the state of Connecticut, if your business is considered a “school,” the amount of rules and regulations you have to abide by increases tenfold. It’s challenging because we operate as a business, not as a school. Kids aren’t there for hours, like a school day; they’re coming in for an hour-long lesson.
NAN: How are you finding instructors?
VAISHALI: We posted the opportunity on Indeed and put up flyers at local colleges and universities. So far, we’ve hired eight “code coaches.” They’re either developers or computer science majors in college.
NAN: It’s great that your business provides economic growth by creating jobs here in Connecticut.
VAISHALI: Thanks. And, I would add, being a coder coach is awesome for college students. It’s basically an internship for them and they’re able to put teaching on their resumes.
But, I’m sure finding coaches is going to be an ongoing challenge, because we want quality code coaches. We want coaches who are creative and have good communication skills, so they can talk to and instruct the kids and show them how to make cool things. It’s not just anyone who knows how to code. Our code coaches must be good with kids and make the experience enjoyable.
NAN: Let’s talk about marketing. How are you getting the word out and making people aware that the school exists? Does the headquarters promote new openings?
VAISHALI: Yes, and that helped. But marketing has been a big challenge, mainly because it’s a brand-new concept in Hartford county. We’ve been doing a bunch of social media marketing and we’ve been in contact with local media—including IDH—that is posting our articles and helping to tell our story.
CHIRAYU: We also did some brainstorming with The Coder School CEO, who encouraged us to take advantage of community markets. You find out what’s going on in the community, where the kids are coming, and set up a Coder School booth where you can distribute flyers and talk to the parents about where the school will be located and when it’s opening.
At community markets we’ll also bring along one of our code coaches and set them up with a laptop. They’ll spend five or 10 minutes working with an interested kid. Even in that short time, they’re able to create something. So, they provide the experience and get the kids and wondering how they can do more.
NAN: Any advice for others who are looking into franchising?
CHIRAYU: Definitely do your research.
Also, many times, when you see a new concept or business idea, you wonder: Why didn’t I think of that? But, you have to change your mentality. Instead of wondering, why you didn’t think of something first, you have to be ahead of the curve. You have to try to understand what the next thing is that will really drive you internally day in and day out. Because you can’t invest in something you don’t believe in.
So, you have to find your passion and then, no matter what, don’t let negative feedback deter you. If you truly believe your business is going to do well, you can’t let other people’s opinions sway your decision.
VAISHALI: I think our passion is that we truly believe coding is the language of the future. No matter your industry, if you have a fundamental understanding about coding or have a coding background, it can put you up a notch from everyone else. It’s also great to fall back on if your career doesn’t work out or you can’t find a job in your industry. You can still find a coding job somewhere.
CHIRAYU: The way I think of it is, when we went to school, part of the regular curriculum included taking a foreign language. That’s pretty common in public schools. To me, coding should be offered as an another option to studying a foreign language.
Learn more about The Coder School Farmington